I'm going to tackle each section separately:
"What is a Christian?" -- Here I actually appreciate Russell's honesty. He is clearheaded enough to not attack a straw man. He talks about watered-down Christianity that was, and still is, popular. He's right to say that Christianity is more than just "... a person who attempts to live a good life." I disagree that "The word does not have quite such a full-blooded meaning now as it had in the times of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. In those days, if a man said that he was a Christian it was known what he meant. You accepted a whole collection of creeds which were set out with great precision, and every single syllable of those creeds you believed with the whole strength of your convictions." I know Christians that could be described that way, in fact, I consider myself to be one! I also disagree with the notion that a Christian can believe that Christ was the "best and wisest of men." A fundamental doctrine of Christianity has to be that Jesus Christ was more than just a wise man, but that He is divine. If Christ isn't divine then Christianity is false, and the surety for that truth is the truth of the resurrection. I also agree with his point concerning the abandonment of the doctrine of Hell. While I accept that Christians can, without abandoning Christianity altogether, have different views of Hell. There still needs to be some kind of understanding of an afterlife, which generally entails Hell and Heaven at the least. It's interesting from a rhetorician's point of view that while he here says that he's not going to include belief in Hell as part of fundamental Christian views, but later he does attack the theology of Hell saying that, "I do not myself feel that any person that is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment." So, believing in Hell isn't fundamental to Christianity, but it is a fundamental teaching of Christ and Russell can't be humane and believe in Hell at the same time. Despite what seems like Russell going back on his statement that Christians don't have to believe in Hell to be Christians, let's move on.
"The Existence of God" -- I was hoping that this would be where his really heavy-hitting arguments against God would start to come out, but alas this section is more about how this is too big of an argument to condense into such a short space (this was a lecture), and that he was only going to summarize his position. It is curious though that he brings up the Roman Catholic Church's teaching "that the existence of God can be proved by the unaided reason." This is a bit confusing because it seems like he's lambasting the Roman Catholic position as being about faith without reason, but then he says that he's going to take on only a few of their arguments here. I am puzzled. If their position is that it's a matter of faith and not reason, then why would they have arguments at all? Arguments are a feature of rational inquiry and persuasion, not blind faith.
"The First Cause Argument" -- Here we go, finally. His first critique of this argument is to call into doubt the concept of causation entirely. He says, "The philosophers and the men of science have got going on cause, and it has not anything like the vitality that it used to have; but apart from that, you can see that the argument that there must be a First Cause is one that cannot have any validity." I don't appreciate the hubris. He hasn't made an argument yet and yet he's already assuring us that it cannot have any validity!? Also, it seems he's trying to say that science has somehow removed the need for a First Cause. How so? He hasn't offered any explanation of that, just a throwaway phrase that "men of science" have somehow debunked this argument. If anything, this argument has only gained traction in the area of science. Big Bang theory has exploded (yes a pun) on the scientific scene as a cosmology that destroys Russell's claim that "men of science" have reduced the vitality of this argument. They have demonstrated quite convincingly that there was an ultimate beginning to the universe, which plays right into the Christian's hand. In Russell's defense Big Bang cosmology was still young in the 1920's but he still doesn't have a scientific leg to stand on here. In addition to floundering scientifically, I think Russell just hasn't contemplated the philosophical arguments against a temporally infinite universe. He says that "the philosophers" have gotten at this as well, but still doesn't address how there could be an infinite past.
After this failure Russell commits probably his worst philosophical argumentation misstep (at least so far), he sets up an easy straw man. He says that when he was eighteen he was convinced by John Stuart Mill's autobiography that there is this question that kills the First Cause argument: "Who made God?" Really? That's your knockout blow? His parody (well, I wish it were a parody, apparently he take this seriously) is, "If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument." First, no theist ever says, intentionally, that "everything must have a cause." There are different varieties of this argument, so I can't include them all, but suffice it to say that Christian theologians/apologists who use First Cause arguments aren't so stupid as to clearly paint themselves into a corner with "everything must have a cause." The phrase that I've heard from most is, "Everything that begins to exist has a cause." That is a fair premise and it doesn't sound anything like Russell's straw man of First Cause arguments.
This next section was particularly humous to me so I have to point it out. He tells of how the Hindus believe "that the world rested upon an elephant, and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, 'How about the tortoise?' the Indian said, 'Suppose we change the subject.'" And, then proceeds to do the very same thing! He says, "The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our imagination. Therefore, perhaps, I need not waste any more time upon the argument about the First Cause." In a sense, he's saying that we're just too naive to see how something could not have a beginning, and like his imaginary Indian says, "suppose we change the subject." Let's hear it, what is your best argument that the universe did not have a beginning. It's no use saying that we're just not imaginative enough to see how that's possible. That's like saying that we've never observed anything starting without a cause nor have we seen anything be infinitely existent, nor could we even imagine what that would look like, but it certainly is just our lack of imagination, it is possible. Just saying that something is possible doesn't make it so. I could say that a married bachelor is "possible" all I wanted, that doesn't make it so. I've said too much on this one part, let's keep going.
"The Natural-law Argument" -- This one is a more interesting one to me because I think Russell has something going for him, at least in part. These types of arguments are commonly called teleological arguments, arguments from design, or fine-tuning arguments. Russell is trying to take on what is, in my opinion, one of the strongest arguments for God. Unfortunately for Russell he didn't have modern science to again demonstrate just how delicately balanced the universe really is. He speaks of the popularity of these types of arguments in Sir Isaac Newton's day as they appealed to the "laws of nature" and that those laws are best explained by the existence of God. He does get something quite wrong here though. He says that once people had God as their explanation that it was "a convenient and simple explanation" and that it "saved them the trouble of looking any further for any explanation of the law of gravitation." Really? He even says that "Nowadays we explain the law of gravitation in a somewhat complicated fashion that Einstein has introduced." But, if we now explain gravitation differently, how did we get to that new understanding if we stopped looking for any further explanation of the law of gravitation back in Newton's day? He contradicts his own position! I will read him with a bit of charity here though and say that what he's really trying to say is that we've now come to understand gravitation differently and that it's not the law that we used to think it was. That's fair enough. "We now find that a great many things we thought were Natural Laws are really human conventions. You know that even in the remotest depth of stellar space there are still three feet to a yard. That is, no doubt, a very remarkable fact, but you would hardly call it a law of nature." This is his strongest point, though it misses the mark.
His strongest point is that what we call "laws" of nature, are really just as subjective as the length of a yard. This is a good point because it cuts out the common phrase (I've heard it from numerous Christians, I've probably even said it) "if there's a law, there must be a lawgiver." The tact that many try to take here is that the laws of nature are like the governing laws of humans. That God wrote the, if you will, constitution of the universe, which included things like the law of gravity. I think this phrase, "laws require a lawgiver," is wrong-headed. I think Russell (and others) have a point. The law of gravity is, at its heart, just a human construct. It's not that gravity would go away if we didn't know about it or if our law were wrong (clearly we've had numerous wrong scientific ideas in the past). However, here's where I think this strongest point misses the mark. The teleological/design/fine tuning arguments don't rest on what we call "laws." What these arguments are really pointing to is the fact that the universe has qualities that only make sense given a divine Designer. Take the law of gravity, it's one of many that has to be a certain strength or the universe would collapse. Cosmologist have techniques and computer models where they have simulated, using complex mathematical modeling, what would happen if any one of the universal constants were somehow different than it is. It's not that there's some law that requires a lawgiver, per se, it's that there's a delicate balance that could only have been set up on purpose.
Russell points out that "Human laws are behests commanding you to behave a certain way, in which way you may choose to behave, or you may choose not to behave; but natural laws are a description of how things do in fact behave, and, being a mere description of what they in fact do, you cannot argue that there must be somebody who told them to do that, because even supposing that there were you are then faced with the question, Why did God issue just those natural laws and no others?" I believe I've sufficiently answered his question in my previous paragraph, but let me summarize it. In cosmological modeling there are very few that will "work" that is, there are very few settings on the cosmological dial that will actually allow for the existence of a universe at all. So, while Russell is right to point out a distinction between human laws and natural laws, we're talking about a different situation altogether. One could say by way of analogy that the universe does seem to be running by a set of laws not unlike a country runs by a set of laws. And, just as a country needs a good set of laws to keep running a universe does as well. Only a perfectly knowledgeable, powerful Creator could set up laws and enforce them in such a way that keeps the whole universe running. Here's another important point that I think Russell gets completely wrong, "if there was a reason for the laws which God gave, then God himself was subject to law, and therefore you do not get any advantage by introducing God as an intermediary." This doesn't take into account what it means to be all-powerful. It seems that Russell is taking omnipotence to mean "able to do absolutely anything." Again, he's breaking with Christianity. Christianity teaches that even God is bound by His own nature, logic. Nonsense is still nonsense even when spoken of about God (I think that someone smarter than me said that, but the closest quote I can find is from John Lennox "Nonsense remains nonsense, even when talked by world-famous scientists.") God can no more make a married bachelor than you or I, because the very concept is nonsense. God chose to use gravity, atoms, quarks, strings (maybe), photons, strong and weak nuclear forces, etc. etc. to build His creation. Those physical things are limited by their natures to be physical. As physical things they have to be arranged in a certain way or else they wouldn't be anything. That is the design. Less like "laws," and more like a delicately balanced masterpiece.
"The Argument from Design" -- He starts off his critique of design arguments with a lot of silly things that people say things are designed for, but they are clearly misconstruing the purpose for which things are designed. Yes, we who hold to a design argument will need to give an accounting for this. If we say that such and such a thing was designed, we have, in a sense, said that we know for what purpose that thing is made. This is obvious with man-made objects. The lamp sitting beside me is clearly purposed to give light to an area. Knowing that purpose I can then say whether or not it was designed and if it was designed well. But, there is another level that Russell doesn't even attempt to address here, probably because it destroys his whole counter to design arguments. He says, "When you come to look into this argument from design, it is a most astonishing thing that people can believe that this world, with all the things that are in it, with all its defects, should be the best that omnipotence and omniscience have been able to produce in millions of years. I really cannot believe it." While I support the first part, we can't speak to the mind of God and say for what purpose the universe was designed (except with God's revealed truth, that is, God has told us some of His purpose for creating), we also cannot speak to whether or not that design is good or bad without knowing the mind of God. But, that is just what Russell is doing. He's saying that the design is bad. How could he know whether the design is good or bad? This is like an ordinary child looking at the design of the so called "Bird's Nest Stadium" (the actual name is the Beijing National Stadium) and saying that the design was bad! Who knows how to design a stadium better, the architects that built that amazing structure or this snotty, haughty child? God is many, many orders of magnitude above our understanding of design than the architect is above the child. So, who is Russell to say that the design is bad?
In addition to claiming to know that this design is bad, Russell also seems to think that the idea that this world will come to an end someday is a point against God's designing the earth. Once again it seems that Russell has fallen into his own trap. He has implied that we can't know something is designed without knowing for what purpose it was designed. But, here Russell has implied that God probably didn't design the world or at least didn't design it well because it will someday be dead and lifeless. Does Russell know for what purpose God made the world? If and only if one knows the ultimate goal of the existence of the world can one say that its dying is a bad design. Think of an analogy here, a lightbulb. It gives light and works. Is it poorly designed if it eventually wears out and stops working? Russell seems to be implying that an omniscient/omnipotent God would be able to design a lightbulb (from our analogy) that can last forever. But, again, does he know God's goal in making the lightbulb? Maybe, and I don't know for sure, God wanted the lightbulb to last only this long and no longer. Only if one knows when something is supposed to go defunct can one say whether or not it performed as expected or not.
When I first started writing this I had hoped I would be able to keep my comments to one entry. But, as I reach this point I realize I should have broken this up into multiple entries. So, I'll do just that. This is part one. Come back tomorrow for part two!
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